Workers Vanguard No. 1063
6 March 2015
Police Terror and Black Oppression
Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The following is a presentation, edited for publication, by Spartacist League spokesman Diana Coleman, who was an activist in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, at a February 21 forum in New York City. Her presentation began with Nina Simone’s version of the song “Strange Fruit” about lynching in America.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees...”
“Strange Fruit,” originally sung by Billie Holiday, was written by a Jewish member of the Communist Party (CP) from New York, Abel Meeropol, who got a fair amount of government harassment for writing it. Meeropol and his wife are also known for adopting the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the two were executed for supposedly being Soviet spies at the height of the McCarthyite witchhunt in 1953.
Why play a song about lynching? As Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote the useful book The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) about the “Great Migration” of blacks to the North, commented recently: “For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century.” That is, a few times every week. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s 2012 annual report lists 313 black people killed by cops, security guards or vigilantes: that’s one life snuffed out every 28 hours.
Here we are, celebrating Black History Month in the context of racist cop terror and the wanton murder of black people in this country, which has been going on for a long time. Every day, there are new reports of killings. But people are demonstrating and that’s good.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, executed in broad daylight by a white cop for the “crime” of walking in the street, and whose lifeless body was left there for hours; Eric Garner, killed for selling loose cigarettes; Akai Gurley, killed while walking down a staircase with his girlfriend in the New York projects; Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, shot by a cop and left to die while his 14-year-old sister was handcuffed and put in a police car where she watched her brother bleed out; Ezell Ford, a mentally disturbed young black man, shot by Los Angeles cops for walking around his neighborhood. There is also Trayvon Martin, shot by a homicidal wanna-be cop, and Oscar Grant, killed by a transit cop in Oakland.
Nor should we forget Manuel Jamines of L.A., a Guatemalan day laborer of indigenous background who spoke neither English nor Spanish, yelled at by cops and shot in the head at point-blank range for being “threatening” while obviously empty-handed and confused. And even a 95-year-old white veteran in an assisted living facility in Chicago who refused to leave his room, shot dead by cops in 2013.
Of those cases, only Oscar Grant’s killer went to jail, and that was for a minimal time; the rest of them walked away and mostly got a paid vacation out of it. Now the cops act as “judge, jury and executioner” instead of the lynch mob. Some progress! The promises of the civil rights movement—and the bloody American Civil War before it—are left unfulfilled and will stay that way until capitalism is overturned. Because beneath the raw, bleeding abscess of police brutality, there is the slower destruction of black people’s lives caused by capitalist economic decay, ongoing discrimination and the all-sided racial oppression that is integral to the American capitalist system.
Police reform is a hoax and a hustle. Federal investigations go nowhere and the Democrats are simply the soft cops of the capitalist system. There is no road to black liberation and the liberation of all working people short of workers revolution. That is the basic point of this talk.
Racism, Repression, Poverty
In the 2008 and 2012 election years, we caught quite a bit of flak for putting forward our class opposition to both the capitalist Democrats and Republicans and calling Obama the commander-in-chief of racist U.S. imperialism. I remember being chased around a supermarket parking lot by an enraged, elderly black lady who was sure I was working for the Republican Party. I tried everything, including our slogans for black liberation through socialist revolution and for a revolutionary workers party, but nothing worked. All she could imagine was that I was a Republican operative.
Yet, when we said that the hopes for “change” around the incoming Obama administration would be brutally dashed, we were very right. Endless racist cop terror has made Obama’s reference to the U.S. as a “colorblind” society pretty threadbare. The reality for most of black America has been, and still is: prison hell, unemployment, home foreclosures, rat-infested ghettos and prison-like inner-city schools.
Around the world, U.S. imperialism under Obama, no less than under Bush, continues to rampage. As we said in one of our seminal works, “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9): “The struggle for Negro freedom takes place not only within the national arena, but within an international context. U.S. capitalism, which doubly exploits black workers, is the cornerstone of world imperialism.” In the Near East, the imperialists are responsible for the bloody chaos of the region. Any blow to the imperialist forces, even by forces as repugnant as ISIS, would serve the interests of the international working class. While politically opposing these reactionaries, we place ourselves militarily on their side when they aim their fire against U.S. imperialism and its local proxies.
Let’s be clear: U.S. imperialism has burned, bombed, napalmed, tortured and committed mass murder on a scale that ISIS can never achieve. Indeed, such barbarism is an essential part of imperialist subjugation. And it’s hardly any surprise to now find out that an American torturer in Guantánamo got his experience torturing black people in Chicago. We say: U.S. imperialism hands off the world!
Here at home, Wall Street is making out like the bandits that they are. Corporate profits are breaking historical records while millions are unemployed or underemployed. With “low-wage America” a popular buzzword, Obama continues his talk about raising the minimum wage to a “fabulous” $10.10 an hour. The reformist left—from Socialist Alternative to the Workers World Party to the International Socialist Organization—are pushing $15 an hour. So I conclude that the difference between the reformist pseudo-socialists and the Democratic Party is $4.90 an hour. You would think that even reformists would want a bigger reform than that!
Though bourgeois pundits keep talking about an economic recovery, the workers and blacks sure haven’t seen it. A New York Times article (14 December) titled “A Growing Economic Recovery Bypasses Low-Wage Workers and Their Tables” comments mildly: “The newest federal statistics on hunger show that one in six people in this city, or about 1.4 million people, could not afford a consistent, adequate supply of food throughout the year during the three-year period from 2011 through 2013, a time of economic recovery.” It goes on: “Meanwhile, food pantries and soup kitchens are reporting increased demand this year from low-wage workers” as well as from “the jobless, the elderly, the homeless.” Great! A recovery where one out of six go hungry part of the time and where workers for major employers like Walmart have to go on food stamps. Walmart is now touting a raise for its workers to a paltry $9 an hour.
Black people, who have the lowest incomes and are forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society, are hit the hardest. Another New York Times article (12 December) notes: “The wealth gap between minorities and whites has continued to increase in the midst of the economic recovery.” The median net worth of a white household was ten times higher than that of a black household in 2007, and in 2013 it was 13 times higher. Housing in this country remains segregated and, with school busing all but gone, American public education is more segregated than at any time since the civil rights movement. Researchers have coined the term “apartheid schools” to describe schools with 1 percent or less white student enrollment, and there are a lot of them.
Michael Brown’s mother wept when she described how hard she worked to get her son through high school. As an article by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times (19 December) commented: “If Michael Brown’s educational experience was a success story, it was a damning one.” The school district he attended is among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri. Half of black male students from his high school never graduate, and only one in four of those who actually do graduate make it to a four-year college. In fact, by the time Michael Brown graduated, the district had lost its state accreditation.
Just down the road lies Clayton, the wealthy county seat where a grand jury unsurprisingly decided not to indict the cop who killed Michael Brown. In the predominantly white public schools there, with computers, new books, gyms and things that schools should have, the graduation rate is 96 percent, with 84 percent continuing to four-year colleges. As the Hannah-Jones article says: “A network of school district boundaries has, to this day, divided students in racially separate schools as effectively as any Jim Crow law. Michael Brown’s education was not exceptional, then, but all too typical, and it illustrates the vast disparity in resources and expectations for black children in America’s segregated school systems.” Even the New York Times speaks some of the truth some of the time.
These prison-like schools do little except to funnel young black men into the actual prison system. Incarceration has been on a scale never before seen in American history. Roughly 2.3 million are behind bars, with black men locked up at the highest rate by far. Many are victims of the decades-long, bipartisan “war on drugs,” pushed not only by Republican reactionaries but also early on by Democratic Party hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
A popular protest slogan has been “black lives matter.” But they don’t matter to the racist rulers of this class-divided society. In light of the deindustrialization of much of the country, many black youth are treated as an expendable surplus population. At the same time, there are still significant numbers of black workers in strategic industries. These workers will be instrumental in any fight to put an end to this racist capitalist hell through socialist revolution.
The power of the working class is derived from its central role in production. By withholding their labor, workers can cut off the flow of profits, the capitalists’ lifeblood. A mobilization of workers’ power against racist cop terror could put a damper on police repression. But that means mobilizing the social power of the multiracial working class independent from and in opposition to the capitalist state and its political parties—Republican, Democrat and Green.
The notion of workers collectively engaging in hard-fought struggle in their own interests, much less in the interests of the black masses, may sound pretty far out to today’s youth. But it is the only answer. When times change and social and class struggle heats up, the working class can, through the work of a revolutionary vanguard party, become imbued with the consciousness of its historic interest as a class fighting for itself and for all of the oppressed.
Marxist Fight Against
I want to talk a bit more historically about the American black question. Our starting point is Marx. There’s endless garbage out there from black nationalists and academics about how Marxism is “Eurocentric” or how “Marx was a racist.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
You cannot understand the black question in a Marxist or materialist sense without understanding, as it was called, the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and the bloody Civil War that ended it. One is struck by Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ astonishing knowledge of American history in their Civil War writings—as well as by their active anti-slavery organizing in Britain. They saw the Civil War as one of the century’s major battles, a social overturn and a harbinger of socialist revolutions to come.
In slavery we see the origins of the material basis for the oppression of black people as a race-color caste, which still defines them today. The unscientific category of “race” and the racist myth of black inferiority were necessary props to the institution of slavery in the U.S. These racist myths continue to be necessary props to American capitalism, part of the divide-and-rule strategy that the bourgeoisie uses to keep the working class down. We must also fight the anti-immigrant chauvinism that is used to turn white and black workers against their immigrant brothers and sisters.
The Civil War, in which 200,000 black troops were crucial to turning the tide, was a revolutionary struggle that smashed the rule of the slaveholders. After the war, the Northern capitalists soon allied with the Southern propertied classes against the aspirations of the black freedmen. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” was scrapped and political power in the Southern states was restored to the former slavocracy, though slavery could not be restored. It is worth contemplating how it took a Civil War, a second American revolution, to end chattel slavery, to get the slaveholders to hand over “their property.” Who could seriously think that today’s capitalists can be persuaded to hand over the factories, banks, mines and mills without a struggle? That will take a third American revolution, a proletarian socialist revolution.
James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, described the crucial intervention of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International in the 1920s in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to proletarian revolution in the U.S. As even the best of the American socialists had been pretty clueless on the question, Cannon said: “Everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolution.” The Comintern’s abandonment of its original revolutionary program under the influence of Stalinism eventually led to disorientation and worse for the American CP on the black question, as it did on all other issues.
Crucially, it was the work of veteran Trotskyist Richard Fraser in the 1940s and ’50s that deepened the Marxist understanding of the black question. Fraser, in the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP), began from the premise that black people, who he described as “the most completely ‘Americanized’ section of the population,” were not an oppressed nation or a nationality in any sense. Therefore, self-determination, or separation in an independent nation, for American blacks did not make sense. Fraser wrote, speaking of the black masses: “The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is, the overthrow of the race system.” He went on to say: “These goals cannot be accomplished except through the socialist revolution” (“For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Struggle” , reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], September 1978).
From the formation of our tendency, which originated in the early 1960s as a left opposition inside the SWP, we described the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste. We have always stood for the perspective of revolutionary integrationism, the fight for the assimilation of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. Reflecting how the struggle for black freedom is a strategic question of the American revolution, we said in an early document:
“Any organization which claims a revolutionary perspective for the United States must confront the special oppression of black people—the forced segregation of blacks at the bottom of capitalist society and the poisonous racism which divides the working class and cripples its struggles. There will be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black and white workers led by their multiracial vanguard party. Moreover, there is no other road to eliminating the special oppression of black people than the victorious conquest of power by the U.S. proletariat.”
—Preface, Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised)
We reject the various forms of black nationalism. And we reject the anti-Marxist conception of “white skin privilege” that has started to pop up again with greater frequency. This theory claims that white workers and bosses are supposedly united in “privilege.” No! Some sections of the white working class do buy into the racism that is fomented by the exploiters. But they have no material stake in the perpetuation of this incredibly unequal society, whose white ruling class enjoys unparalleled riches coming at workers’ expense. Look at the American South, where conditions are worse for white working people as well as blacks—few unions and low wages. White, black and Latino workers have a common interest in overthrowing capitalism, but you have to fight to bring this consciousness to the working class.
Organizing Black Workers
in the South
Let me talk about the civil rights movement. Why is it that petty-bourgeois preachers like Martin Luther King and his group the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to the fore in the Southern civil rights struggles? Was the church so progressive? Was it the only institution that Southern blacks respected? Cornel West and his ilk would probably answer “yes” to both questions, and go on to talk about King as a “revolutionary Christian”—which seems like an oxymoron to me.
The truth is that civil rights struggles didn’t start with King or the 1954 Supreme Court decision banning school segregation (now mostly a dead letter). They were sparked in the early 1940s when the social structure of black America, North and South, took on an increasingly urban, proletarian character. The creation of a Southern black proletariat fundamentally eroded the Jim Crow system of segregation, a system based on police/Klan terror aimed at atomized rural sharecroppers. A bunch of hooded Klansmen riding through rural Mississippi was one thing, but in all-black areas of Birmingham they were more likely to get their butts kicked.
Union organizing brought the black proletariat together in a setting where they had some social power. There is a fascinating article that comrades have recommended to me over the years called “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement” (1988) by Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein. It details organizing efforts by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the early ’40s. Union organizing was also going on in the Southern cities of Memphis, Richmond, Charleston and Louisville.
At the R.J. Reynolds processing plant, blacks formed the majority of the workforce, although, of course, whites had the better-paying, easier jobs. Earlier, the American Federation of Labor had tried to organize the plant, but their plan for setting up two segregated locals hadn’t gone over too well with black workers. The CIO, which came in with “several young black organizers,” targeted black workers and “championed black dignity and self-organization” while supporting an industrial union for all.
Eventually becoming the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers Local 22, this union, not surprisingly for the time, was led by the Communist Party. Also not surprisingly, the black ministers and the black petty bourgeoisie came out hard against the union, writing letters to the bourgeois press urging workers to reject it. This Booker T. Washington-style accommodationism was typical for preachers, who are beholden to the capitalists and landlords. But black workers responded with indignation. One, noting that he attended church for 30 years, wrote angrily: “Now that the laboring class of people are about to unite and co-operate on wholesale scale for the purpose of collective bargaining, these same leaders seem to disagree with that which they have taught their people.” A group of union members asserted: “We feel we are the leaders instead of you.” Indeed!
Interestingly, as a side note, the 2014 documentary Spies of Mississippi shows how some blacks were used by the state government to infiltrate and spy on the civil rights movement, and they were not the most downtrodden. They were part of the black petty bourgeoisie—including a well-known black preacher and the editor of a black newspaper—who felt that the struggle for integration would cost them their position in the black community.
Going back to Local 22, the union was organized and the CP recruited. They had a lively union hall with a softball team, checkers tournaments and a library with books by Herbert Aptheker, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass. (Obviously CP-dominated.) The union engaged in political agitation against segregation and conducted voter registration drives alongside other CIO unions organizing anti-poll tax and anti-lynching campaigns in the South.
But this union movement was soon channeled by the CP into the Democratic Party. This was a continuation of the CP’s sellout perspective of tailing “progressive” capitalist politicians. In the mid 1930s, the CP along with the rest of the CIO leadership had joined Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. In the South, such a perspective meant trying to reform a racist police state by supporting the ruling Democratic Party dominated by Dixiecrats.
In the late 1940s, the government launched a massive anti-Communist witchhunt to smash the militancy of the industrial unions that had been organized in the 1930s and early ’40s. The Taft-Hartley Act barred Communists from holding union office and banned a whole host of militant strike tactics. The CIO opposed Taft-Hartley in the abstract, but adhered to it in practice. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Electrical Workers and nine other CP-led unions with around one million members, almost 20 percent of the entire CIO membership, were expelled from the CIO. A key figure in these red purges was Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and later head of the CIO.
These witchhunts wrecked working-class civil rights activity in the South. Media redbaiting, police attacks and CIO raiding, combined with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), destroyed Local 22. It was the same story in Alabama with the CP-led Mine, Mill and Smelter Union. (The struggles of that union in New Mexico were the subject of the 1954 movie, Salt of the Earth.)
Ironically, the destruction of integrated union power took place against the backdrop of “Operation Dixie,” the official CIO campaign to organize the South (the name tells you enough). Predictably, as an organizing drive that avoided taking on the race question and excluded all left-wingers, it failed. Referring to this failure as “one of the great tragedies for American labor,” Michael Goldfield acerbically comments in his book The Color of Politics (1997): “The bureaucratism and obtuseness to the importance of solidarity and worker militancy, especially to questions of race, led the CIO right into a completely self-defeating strategy.” Class collaboration was the name of the game for the CIO bureaucrats.
By the late 1950s and ’60s, Birmingham and other places in Alabama would be at the center of the civil rights movement. Yet, the militant integrated unions that could have mobilized the social power of the working class at the head of that movement had mostly ceased to exist. The International Longshoremen’s Association, which was still a union bastion in the mostly non-union South, had segregated locals.
The Korstad and Lichtenstein article states: “Local 22 disappeared from Winston-Salem political and economic life, and a far more accommodative black community leadership filled the void left by the union’s defeat.” Perhaps the authors wouldn’t agree, but that accommodative leadership was Martin Luther King and the preachers who became the backbone of the gradualist, pro-Democratic Party civil rights establishment.
Let me comment that the erstwhile social-democrat Walter Reuther, having purged the reds from the UAW and smashed any attempt to mobilize against black oppression in Detroit, became a big supporter of Martin Luther King. That’s not a contradiction. Like many anti-Communists, Reuther supported the liberal civil rights agenda as a way to undercut the political influence of communists. He could easily support Martin Luther King’s pacifist liberalism in the South, and not have to deal in the slightest with racist practices in the Detroit auto plants or within the UAW itself.
Early Civil Rights Struggles
In 1965, I went down to Mississippi. While I wasn’t in the SL then, by the time I returned I would have agreed 100 percent with what the SL wrote that same year:
“From the beginning the black voter registration campaign in the South was an assertion of potential independence—directed against the underlying social system as well as the segregationist political apparatus which helps maintain it. Revolutionary in implication because it involved organizing masses of black workers and share-croppers in struggle, the mass character of the movement poses a dangerous threat to the American ruling class and its politicians. Hence they use every means at their disposal to derail the movement—including sending in such kept leaders as Martin Luther King—to head it off and deliver it to the Democratic Party where the job of beheading and neutralizing it can be finished off.”
—“Conspiracy and Treachery in Alabama,” Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965
Today, we hear a lot of discussion about “reclaiming” King’s “radical legacy.” But, no, “kept leader” is about right.
Martin Luther King came to the fore during the Montgomery bus boycott. New in town and not originally in the leadership, he was pushed forward as a more “educated” and respectable spokesman. As a preacher, he had no real job to lose. Under the influence of anti-communist social-democrats like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King proselytized for pacifism and nonviolence.
There is a funny story. Early on, Rustin visited Martin Luther King’s house and saw armed guards at the door and guns lying around, surely in response to threats against him. But Rustin had a fit. Rustin was also influential in helping King and others set up the SCLC. Emphasizing the “Christian” in its name, its strategy of pacifist “direct action” was captured in King’s famous statement: “We will soon wear you down by pure capacity to suffer.”
As a moral philosophy, this is disgusting. But the real point is it was a political strategy. It was a way of keeping the movement respectable, appealing to the consciences of those in power. King and the SCLC looked to the Northern liberals of the Democratic Party and the federal government to come to the aid of black people.
After the long bus boycott, the buses were integrated in Montgomery and King was riding high on his pacifism and “soul force.” But blacks in Montgomery were left to face the racist backlash. The KKK came out of their holes, black churches were bombed and King’s house was dynamited. Rosa Parks was blacklisted and hounded out of Montgomery, eventually forced to move to Detroit. King told angry blacks, even those rising to his defense, to cool it.
[TO BE CONTINUED]